The Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (the “nation-state law”) is in the headlines again, in the wake of the heroic sacrifices made by the Druze community in Israel during the war that followed Hamas’s October 7th massacre. This is only proper, given that the law — which was intended as a kind of “identity card” for the State of Israel — includes an incomplete and discriminatory definition of the state. Israel is indeed the nation-state of the Jewish people. But is more than that: it is also a democratic state, and the state of all the minorities who live in it, who are all entitled to equal rights as promised by the Declaration of Independence. Lawmakers are currently considering passing a Basic Law granting the Druze special status in order to amend this injustice to the Druze community, which would be a mistake. The right course of action is to amend the nation-state law so that it does not discriminate against any citizen of Israel.
However, in these dark days, it is worth noting that alongside the problematic clauses in the nation-state law, the “missing” clauses, and the clauses that simple state the obvious (the flag, the national symbol, Shabbat observance, etc.), the law also includes a clause that every Israeli citizen should be proud of. Even as someone who attended the discussions of the law in the special committee established to legislate it, where I opposed the law in its current discriminatory format, I still take pride in the fact that this section has entered the State of Israel’s constitutional body of law.
This clause declares that “the state will strive to secure the welfare of members of the Jewish people and of its citizens who are in straits and in captivity due to their Jewishness or due to their citizenship.” This is a particularly exceptional section of the law in that it relates to the obligation of the state not just toward members of its Jewish citizens, but to all Jewish people and all citizens — to care for them whenever they are in jeopardy due to their Jewish identity or their citizenship. The clause was amended during the legislative process, with the original draft referring only to the welfare of members of the Jewish people, as the legislators realized that there is a limit to differentiating between victims of such unfortunate circumstances.
Beyond that, the clause expresses a true and unique value in Israeli society — that the State of Israel will take exceptional steps to save its citizens (and members of the Jewish people who are not citizens) who are in trouble anywhere in the world because of their identity, even if this requires a huge investment of resources or taking certain risks. Over the years, Israel’s citizens have known that the state would show up and save them from danger far before other states would care for their citizens in emergencies and disasters. That was the case, for example, when the war in Ukraine broke out, or when various natural disasters struck in different places. It has also been the case for captured IDF soldiers, as Israel has paid very painful prices to save lives and bring them home, even in cases where (in my opinion) these prices were too high. But this willingness has reflected the highly remarkable attitude of the State of Israel toward the value of its citizens’ lives, which is well expressed in this unique clause of the nation-state law.
I am not arguing that the clause imposes a legal obligation on the state to secure the release of the hostages taken by Hamas at any price and to agree to any arrangement that Hamas seeks to force on it. But it does reflect this special value, which must not be lost during this war, and it does obligate the state to make every effort to bring the hostages home. Many lives were forfeited on October 7th, and the state must not forfeit the lives of the hostages again, even at the price of significant risks and painful concessions. This principle, of mutual responsibility among Israelis, is a fundamental value of the State of Israel, and we must take care not to lose it.